Recently I was approached about writing a theatre review for Yellow Skies, an original Australian production that premiered last Wednesday at the Metanoia Theatre in Melbourne. The play has been written, directed, and produced by some of the Arts Academy’s hardest working graduates. The opportunity to speak with current industry members — more specifically, people who understood the pre-working, drama school lifestyle — was one that I was keen to take advantage of.
Having graduated from the University of Ballarat just over four years ago, the five co-founding members of Baker’s Dozen Theatre Company are the team behind Yellow Skies. This is just the latest production of the seven professional shows the team has performed since they established in 2013.
I sat down with Mitchel Edwards and Robin Thomas, the playwright and director of Yellow Skies respectively, to chat about their personal approaches to a career in the performing arts. Though both were once university Acting students themselves, neither one has taken the sit-back-and-wait attitude to their projects. Instead, the two best friends and co-creators have taken a hardworking, hands-on approach to their professional development — both on and off stage.
With such an impressive résumé, given their relatively short amount of industry time, I write this review not for Yellow Skies, but for want of understanding the key to the Baker’s success. They are a small group committed to giving you a little more than you paid for and I wanted to find out what it was that motivated the team to continually push forward.
“We really strive to bring together a collective of people and try to be a launch pad for the theatre community,” says Robin, the director of Yellow Skies. “I’ll be honest, when we first started the company it was about getting bums in seats, because we [were] running a business and wanted to make sure that the average Joe could come and see our shows. But how we did that was by creating accessible theatre.”
“However, recently we went back to questioning what we thought it meant to be accessible and found we had never done a show with AusLan interpretation, considered disabled seating, or made an acknowledgment to country. So we thought about what kind of responsibilities we have as theatre makers,” Robin outlines the decisions made by the company to become even more inclusive of all audience members.
Mitchel recounts Robin’s recent decision to hire an AusLan interpreter for the group’s last show, Soul of a Whore. He even went so far as to pay for the service out of his own pocket.
Robin admits this to be true, though he is quick to point out the group’s main purpose for creating. “More so than anything we are telling stories, that is really the core of our company. We believe it is the purpose of theatre, from the front of house, to the cast and crew, to tell stories. Over the past year, we’ve returned to this mission statement and wanted to make sure we were in line with what we were saying.”
The Baker’s Dozen team has earned themselves a standing ovation for their diverse accessibility services. This is just one part of the team’s commitment to investing in the community, which they believe, in turn, can invest in them.
“We often get theatre grads who, like me, didn’t get all of these extra skills like lighting design or building sets. I’ve had to learn these things the hard way,” Robin explains.
Because of this, the company doesn’t take this type of hands-on learning for granted. “We definitely believe, and try to invest, in skills and people. Therefore we believe in training graduates [to do these extra production jobs], because when you’re investing in their skills, they can invest in you. It definitely benefits both parties,” he furthers.
What started as a small, independent company by friends post-graduation has expanded into a household name amongst Arts Academy students. Two of the three cast members in the upcoming Yellow Skies are recent Camp Street graduates, and any person witness to one of Federation University’s Acting or Musical Theatre shows will recognise more than a few faces from other Baker’s productions. I asked him if that was that intentional — is the Baker committed to hiring from their own?
“Honestly, when we’re auditioning, the Arts Academy grads are the best in the lot,” says Robin. “I’m not just saying that. Compared to say, the VCA grads, and we do get some in from 16th Street, the Ballarat grads are the most well-trained and audition the best.”
Over the last few years, fellow Arts Academy graduates have been popping up across Australian stages and silver screens. Recently, graduate Hannah Monson was nominated for a Logie Award for her leading role on ABC’s Glitch, and graduate Abigail Grace won the leading role of Tracie Turnblad with Ballarat Lyric Theatre’s production of Hairspray in 2012. Other Acting and Musical Theatre graduates have been seen working with the Melbourne Shakespeare Company, the Australian Shakespeare Company, and La Mama Theatre.
Now in the midst of the production season for Yellow Skies, the Baker’s crew know all too well the hustle needed to be a part of inspired work post-graduation. This extraordinarily hard-working group wanted to produce their own work, instead of waiting around for the phone to ring.
“We all have our individual strengths; Mitch with his writing, both Blake and I have directed, Michelle is our social media person, Eliza does production management, and I think all of us have acted in our shows except me,” Robin lists off the skilled attributes of the founders.
Did the ensemble always want to act, write, and direct? “Well, I always did a lot of writing. I wrote a couple of shows for community theatre, which will never see the light of day,” laughs Mitch. “But when I went to university I really got exposed to new stories and playwrights. I got to see playwrights other than just Shakespeare.”
“I think a lot of these things come with experience and age,” says Robin. “I didn’t know what directing actually meant or entailed. The more I went through the course [at the Arts Academy], I saw more of what directing was meant to be and thought that I might actually like to do it.”
“When you’re submersed in the Arts Academy environment, the people around you keep pushing you to get better”, Mitch explains how his writing career really began while he was still in school. I myself have been musing over the idea of being completely engrossed in dramatic art before graduating. I can’t help but wonder: is leaving this place and running out into the industry all it’s cracked up to be?
With recent cuts to over 62 arts organisations by the Australia Council for the Arts, the future of those working in the creative industries is seemingly bleaker than ever. What has been coined ‘Black Friday’ by industry insiders has left dozens of small-to-medium sized art companies without any sort of federal government funding, without which, many will struggle to remain open. Within months of these cuts will be yet another round of Acting and Musical Theatre students joining the likes of the Baker’s out in the real world. I cannot help but be concerned about the possible lack of opportunities for them.
“If there’s something we’re really super passionate about, it’s working full-time and having a career that supports this ‘other career’,” Robin explains. “Then when it comes down to it, if you need funds for larger shows, you can invest in yourself and not have to go to external sources. Also, because you’re investing in it yourself, you know the value of the money going into the show.”
“I also happen to think there’s something to be said for having a life outside of the arts,” I further. More often than not, particularly when in the midst of drama school, it is easy to forget social circles, hobbies, and passions that can be had outside the theatre world.
Mitch resolutely agreed with me. “Yeah, it’s having life skills and remembering there is an outside world and you need to make real life observations.”
Mitch has never been one to accept that the actor’s life can be one of inclusivity. In 2014, FedPress interviewed the young playwright before the professional debut of his original production DRAFT., a play about friendship and the transition to adulthood in the face of war. DRAFT. came to light over the course of a five-year adventure from student production, to workshop, to collaboration piece amongst actor, writer, and director. Even then, Mitch believed that having his Baker production team to lean on as a writer is what resolutely helped him bring the show to light.
Much like his counterpart, the actor’s boredom that can come from waiting for the phone to ring appears to be something Robin has never understood. “A lot of our friends are like ‘we’re bored, we have nothing to do.’ You hear that a lot of artists struggle and yet we work full-time jobs [to] support ourselves financially and go to rehearsal after work is over.”
I couldn’t help but note that this workload seems like a lot of man-hours.
“I think school is when you learn how to do that. You’re completely submersed in this world for a 60-hour contact week, and then suddenly you’re out of school and not working, even creatively, and you’re sort of in this void. In limbo,” Robin reflects on making the switch from the university environment to the working world. Mitch is quick to jump in and agree, adding “you need to fill your life with something.”
As a soon-to-be graduate of the Arts Academy, and in the midst of a dramatic economic downturn for the arts’ community, I find myself tossing around the possibilities of creating my own work. Having now seen the commitment and determination my fellow community members maintain to get their own projects out there, I find myself more motivated than ever.
Mitch, Robin, and the rest of the Baker’s team are probably some of the hardest working actors that I have recently met. They are dedicating themselves to working so that they can work as actors. Having learned how to hustle and balance life with education over the past three years, I like to think I could work with similar dedication upon graduating in November.
Financial stability, writing my own works, bringing productions to light, I am wholly inspired by Mitch and Robin after our discussion. These were all goals I considered but, until now, only dreamed of. Seeing this very real example of working for your success now makes me believe it can come true and that, just maybe, we can pull ourselves up the success ladder instead of waiting for someone to give us a hand.
Words by Brianna MacDonald
The production follows two young men struggling to survive in post-Apocalyptic Australia after a global catastrophe known only as Yellow Skies. Caught dreaming of a better life, Noah and Glen’s fate are further tested when a stranger walks into their camp, threatening to take more than their belongings.
Yellow Skies, written by Mitchel Edwards and directed by Robin Thomas, is currently playing at the Metanoia Theatre Space in Brunswick from Wednesday 18 May to Sunday 29 May 2016. Tickets available here.